SALEM — Housing-friendly zoning changes shot down by the City Council this past winter are back on the table, just with a different sized plate and a clean set of silverware to carve them up.
The City Council received a new zoning approach to save vacant municipal and religious buildings at its meeting Thursday night. The proposal arrived on the heels of a narrow shutdown of a similar city-wide overlay earlier this year, and it passed unanimously on a fast-moving path to hold a joint hearing with the Planning Board soon.
The initial overlay proposal, known as the "Municipal and Religious Overlay District" (MROD), was first drafted as a response to two Archdiocese-owned properties that were targeted for conversion into homes. It later became a pivotal tool to allow the redevelopment of the old senior center building on 5 Broad St., which the City Council recently sold to a developer for $1.35 million while understanding that there was no current way to redevelop the building allowed by city law.
MROD, after months of deliberations, received a favoring seven-to-four vote in February, but it needed a supermajority of eight councilors to pass, meaning it ultimately failed. An effort to revisit and reconsider the vote two weeks later failed six to five, meaning the plan was defeated and it can't be revisited until at least the next calendar year.
This proposal, different enough to circumvent the rule barring its return until January, creates a "special permit" that developers can apply for and applies to all residential zoning districts and industrial sites. It's a broad-enough departure from the overlay to allow it to move forward, according to city planning director Tom Daniel.
"There are still eligibility criteria... a 50-year-old building, 4,000 square feet," Daniel said. "There's no new construction (allowed) except for a little bit for access."
In a letter to the City Council, Mayor Kim Driscoll described the "Municipal and Religious Reuse" (that's MRR, as opposed to MROD) permit as "an alternative approach to allow for the successful preservation and reuse of these key buildings."
"This new approach reflects the information gathered over nine months of work, including even public meetings and many hours of public comment," Driscoll wrote. "(It) fully addresses any remaining concerns raised by those City Councillors who had opposed the overlay zoning concept. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the special permit model proposed here will receive the Council's endorsement."
Debate Thursday night focused not on the proposal, but on how leaders should talk about it. That was led in part by City Council President Steve Dibble, who argued that sending the matter straight to a public hearing would lock-in parts of the package and prevent future changes due to legal advertising.
Robert McCarthy, the City Council's Ward 1 councilor and chairperson of the ordinance committee Dibble was targeting, recalled how Dibble previously "told us emphatically that he wanted the city planner to get us this information by the deadline of Tuesday at noon (to make it on the Thursday agenda), which he did."
"If by taking an extra two weeks so I can have a committee meeting sometime between now and two weeks from now, and then set a public hearing, I'll do it," McCarthy said, "if that's the will of the body."
The remark drew quick fire from Councilor-at-large Tom Furey, who referenced his plans to not run for office this year when he said "I want to do it (the zoning change) in my time on the City Council. We need to put it on the fast track."
The City Council eventually voted by hand, with no apparent votes in opposition, to send it to the Planning Board to schedule the hearing.